Method to the mad­ness: Spall gives it his all in ‘Mr. Turner’


Talk about suf­fer­ing for your art.

Achiev­ing his ac­claimed per­for­mance as the mas­ter­ful Bri­tish land­scape painter J.M.W. Turner in “Mr. Turner” took so much out of Ti­mothy Spall, the veteran ac­tor found him­self kneel­ing down at the artist’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathe­dral when it was all over — and cry­ing.

“I just knelt down, had a bit of a weep, and wiped it off on my el­bow,” the 57- year- old ac­tor says. “It was quite a jour­ney, you know.”

A jour­ney in­deed. Work­ing with the fa­mously ex­act­ing di­rec­tor Mike Leigh, as he has a num­ber of times, Spall was tasked with what he calls de­tec­tive work, delv­ing deep into Turner’s art to fer­ret out Turner the man. The artist died in 1851 — “pre- psy­cho­anal­y­sis,” Spall notes. “And he never re­ally ex­plained him­self. He didn’t want any­body to re­ally know what he was up to.”

This meant that Spall, aside from read­ing ev­ery­thing he could get his hands on, had to learn to paint him­self.

“Mike said, `Are you up for it? And I said, `All right, if this is what it’s gonna take,” Spall re­calls. “And we just went and looked at th­ese paint­ings, and I kept say­ing, ` What IS that?’ And I re­al­ized my job was to look at this mas­sive ex­plo­sion of ge­nius and im­plode it all back in, right back to where it started.”

So Spall stud­ied — still life, real life, draw­ing in all its forms, even Greek and Ro­man ar­chi­tec­ture. “I even started read­ing about Goethe’s the­ory of light,” he says.

Of­ten, films about fa­mous artists have por­trayed them as rar­i­fied ge­niuses. “Mr. Turner” is dif­fer­ent — the movie, which has earned raves for both Leigh and Spall, de­picts an unas­sum­ing son of a bar­ber who sim­ply worked and worked, all the time. In­deed, Turner pro­duced a stag­ger­ing 20,000 works on pa­per, and more than 300 oil paint­ings.

“How did he do that? Well, he just never stopped,” Leigh says. “He was just at it all the time. I mean it’s a phe­nom­e­nal amount of stuff. This is a guy who just does it, and what he does is ex­tra­or­di­nary. And HOW he does it re­mains a mys­tery.”

The film was some­what of a de­par­ture for Leigh, one of Bri­tain’s most ad­mired direc­tors, who is known mostly for gritty con­tem­po­rary films about work­ing-class char­ac­ters. But he says that once he made the 1999 “Topsy- Turvy” about Gil­bert and Sul­li­van, he re­al­ized he was “over the idea that I was only ever go­ing to make con­tem­po­rary films.”

“I started to look into Turner hav­ing known the paint­ings, “the di­rec­tor says, “and once I started to in­ves­ti­gate Turner the character, I thought, this world is ab­so­lutely meant to be dra­ma­tized.” Turner was a man, for ex­am­ple, who had him­self tied to the mast of a ship dur­ing a huge storm, in or­der to bet­ter un­der­stand the force of na­ture at sea — a scene recre­ated in “Mr. Turner.”

Spall and Leigh for­mu­lated the character over two years of study, and six months of re­hearsal. Oh, and three trips by Spall to Turner’s grave.

“First, when Mike asked me (to do the film), I went down there and pre­tended to tie my shoes, knelt by his grave and just had a quick word. I said, `Look, for what I’m about to do, please for­give me! And help me if you can.”’

A sec­ond trip came half­way through film­ing. “I went back and said, `Look, I don’t know if this is go­ing the way you’d like!’ Again pre­tend­ing to tie my shoes.”

The third trip came when he’d fin­ished the film. This was when he wept. “This time I didn’t even bother to pre­tend to tie my shoes,” he says.

The film made a splash at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val last May, where Spall was named best ac­tor. Then on Dec. 1, Spall was named best ac­tor by the New York Film Crit­ics Cir­cle.

“I’m ... I’m just flab­ber­gasted,” he said, hav­ing got­ten the news mo­ments be­fore this in­ter­view. “My gast is ab­so­lutely flab­bered! I sup­pose what’s lovely about it is that I’ve been around a bit, and you get plenty of kicks up the arse, you know? So it’s nice to get flow­ers ev­ery now and again.”

Spall is con­sid­ered a con­tender — but per­haps an out­side shot, in a very crowded field — for an Os­car nom­i­na­tion. But he’s just happy that all the recog­ni­tion means more peo­ple are see­ing the film — and Turner’s paint­ings, too, cur­rently on dis­play in an ex­hibit of the artist’s late work at the Tate Gallery in London.

“It seems that Turner’s work­ing his magic at the mo­ment,” the ac­tor says.


In this im­age re­leased by Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics, Ti­mothy Spall ap­pears in a scene from “Mr. Turner.”

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